Inside Warner Bros. Discovery’s Secret Joint Bid With the European Broadcasting Union For Media Rights to the Olympics

When the news broke on Monday that Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) had jointly bid for Olympics media rights, it came as a surprise to much of the industry.

Not least because in 2015, (a pre-merger) Discovery Communications caused an upset when they swooped in and nabbed the broadcasting rights from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for €1.3 billion ($1.5 million), right from under the noses of both the EBU, which represents public service broadcasters across Europe, and agency SportFive, who had previously held the rights.

The deal saw Discovery’s Eurosport network become the primary European broadcaster for two Olympics “cycles” (each one consisting of a summer and winter games), running from 2018 to 2024. The deal includes next year’s Paris summer games.

Despite the IOC guaranteeing public service broadcasters a minimum of 200 hours of free-to-air coverage as part of the deal (with some PSBs, including the U.K.’s BBC, getting around 350 hours) the result was still patchy free-to-air coverage across the continent. As Variety reported during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, “the key issue for European viewers is how many Olympic events are available to watch live and when, which is now dependent on the sub-license each territory has been able to wrangle with Discovery.”

Unbeknown to anyone, conversations were already happening between Discovery and the EBU behind the scenes. It was during the Tokyo games that Discovery’s president of sports Andrew Georgiou (now president of Warner Bros. Discovery Sports Europe) and EBU’s director of sport Glen Killane met for lunch to explore a joint bid. “That was really the first serious conversation we had about looking at the Olympics,” Killane tells Variety.

The union is perhaps not as unexpected as it first seems. Both Killane and Georgiou emphasized to Variety that EBU and WBD have had a long partnership: pay television network Eurosport began life as a joint venture between EBU and Sky before being sold to TF1 and eventually Discovery, while EBU still owns the rights to a number of Europe-wide sporting events, including the Tour de France that WBD licenses broadcast rights for.

Nonetheless, the joint bid required utter secrecy in order to stay competitive. “We had to keep it hush hush,” Killane says.

So what’s in it for both parties? For WBD, there is only upside, especially since it means the company are no longer solely responsible for the financial burden. Although all the parties have agreed not to disclose the sum paid, a source told Variety WBD’s previous consideration of $1.5 billion can be used as a “guide.” “We believe this is the biggest ever collective deal in public media history in Europe,” Killane said.

The parties also declined to confirm how the final sum has been apportioned between WBD and EBU but the key is that WBD is now only paying for the share of the content that they’re keeping. Even though the wheels for the joint bid were set in motion long before Discovery’s merger, given WBD is undergoing a significant company-wide cost-cutting exercise, the timing of the deal could not be better.

It also means that they have shed the administrative burden of negotiating with dozens of different broadcasters for the free-to-air rights, which is a requirement of any deal with the IOC. “We’re not in the sub-licensing business,” Georgiou tells Variety. “So the reason we did the deal with the EBU is because […] we don’t have to take the risk or opportunity of sub-licensing significant volumes of content to public sector broadcasters.”

Meanwhile WBD will remain what it calls the “home of the Olympics,” offering the most comprehensive coverage of the games in one place. And with the company lagging behind in offering a pan-European streaming platform, it sees the Olympics as a crucial tool to help it catch up. “As we start to think about the future launch of Warner Bros. Discovery’s streaming product in Europe, the Olympics provides a really important marketing opportunity,” Georgiou says. “It’s a really good way to bring brand awareness to that product as a result of what the Olympics is, which is a huge cultural moment every two years.”

The EBU, meanwhile, are just pleased to be back in the room when it comes to Olympic broadcasting rights. “We don’t need to own it all, we just need to be part of it,” Killane says.

Negotiating on behalf of all its members, the union has been able to carve out a better deal for many broadcasters than when negotiating individually. Among the improvements Killane cites the relaxing of editorial restrictions around what each broadcaster is allowed to air, pointing out that ice hockey-obsessed Finland will again be able to show the competition under the new deal, which they couldn’t when they were dealing independently with Discovery. Other countries, such as Sweden and Norway, whose broadcasters haven’t had the right to broadcast the Olympics since 2012, have been brought back in the fold.

Although in many territories, including the U.K., the broadcaster’s rights remain largely the same, “some have done better [than under the previous deal],” Killane assures. But crucially, he adds, “nobody’s doing worse.”

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